The Flame was a 60-year-old gallery owner/art collector with shocking red dyed hair, a flamboyant air and so much ‘fuck you’ money that he didn’t have a care-the only thing he really cared about on that night was getting The Duke to stick his large paintbrush into his collection of concentric circles….”
by adam kluger
Manfred Gogol had bitten his tongue for far too long.
It was one thing to sit at a sports bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and debate the shortcomings of Hollywood’s latest lame offerings or the relative strengths of various Southwestern Conference college basketball teams, but discussing art with someone who was completely deluded and full of shit, that was an entirely different matter.
Marmaduke Johnson was from the other side of the tracks.
Born and bred in Harlem , the Duke, as he was known in NYC art circles, was being heralded as the second coming of the revered street artist Jean Michel Basquiat. Problem was, the only art circles that actually saw this spiritual or artistic connection to Basquiat, a Warhol contemporary, was the Duke himself and a couple of his Harlem homeboys who spent their free time tagging subway cars with graffiti. The Duke had street “cred” with his homies all right but in the art world he was considered just another uneducated, straight, art-world wannabe who was deluding himself. And oh yeah, he was also a…negro (whispered hush).
Manfred, who actually was a real artist, lived on the lunar fringe as a conceptual artist, photographer and trust-fund baby boomer who had leveraged his lucky sperm club status to find entrée into all the important art parties and galleries in Manhattan. Manfred was also the real deal. Despite his economic advantages, he actually truly was an artist. He had “it.” The ability to create something magical and timeless, irreverent and ironic with his Pentax camera. He traveled around the United States documenting America with his camera and an acerbic sense of humor. His work showed in galleries around the U.S. and Europe. When Manfred Gogol walked in the room at an art world event, the buzz was always palpable.
How Manfred and Marmaduke became friends in the first place was kind of a mystery.
That was the way that Manfred rolled most of the time anyway. One day he would be spotted at a coffeehouse in Tucson, Arizona, the following week he would be dressed in a black tie at a legal defense fund dinner for a former U.S. President at the Hyatt hotel in Midtown. Maybe it’s because the Duke also sold pot “on the side” when he wasn’t spraying concentric circles all over “found” canvases like broken windows, garbage can tops and pieces of wet cardboard. The Duke’s “studio” in Spanish Harlem was an abandoned building and the only real neighbors who would hang around the graffiti-covered staircase were a pair of 13-year-old lookouts for the local street gang responsible for distributing the white powder to their white neighbors “in need” below the demarcation line of East 96th Street.
Yeah, that’s right. It all started when The Duke answered a strange phone number on his pager. Who still had a “212” area code? Was this a call from a 5-0 (undercover cop) or something worth investigating the Duke wondered to himself. That was about three years ago. When Marmaduke the drug dealer and aspiring artist responded to Manfred Gogol’s phone call he was instructed to meet Gogol outside of a famous eatery on the Upper East Side. This Gogol character had balls apparently. He couldn’t care less if his well-heeled neighbors saw him scoring drugs on the street in front of their WASPY restaurant, where incidentally, Gogol’s art curator claimed one could get the best chicken salad sandwich in the city. After the deal was done. Gogol became a reliable customer. Occasionally the Duke would be invited to hang out, take a hit and watch college basketball with Gogol in his private screening room. After a year, Gogol and the Duke started to just hang out. Eventually, after getting arrested randomly by a flatfoot while carrying a small amount of pot at the end of a busy day, the Duke gave up the drug business and decided he wanted to try an even more dangerous and dirtier racket-the art world.
Like Jack Kerouac, the Duke used to carry a large spiral notebook with him everywhere he went. He would doodle in the sketchbook. Always different combinations of concentric circles of different sizes and configurations. It wasn’t really art per se, they were ideas about art. Mood sketches without any real plan. They made him feel normal. They made him feel special. These little circles drawn in pencil on loose-leaf paper.
Eventually, Manfred introduced Marmaduke to The Flame. The Flame was a 60-year-old gallery owner/art collector with shocking red dyed hair, a flamboyant air and so much “fuck you” money that he didn’t have a care-the only thing he really cared about on that night was getting The Duke to stick his large paintbrush into his collection of concentric circles. The “deal” was consummated over a bottle of Pinot Grigio at the Flame’s lower east side loft. The following morning, the Flame had a new “pet” and protégé, the exotic Nubian street artist Marmaduke Johnson III, who all of a sudden had working capital to purchase large canvases, a new loft to work out of and a Spring gallery show to get started on. The Duke stopped calling Gogol and for about a year they lost touch. In that time, The Flame had lit the way for the Duke to become “the hot new thing.” The Duke’s found canvases, a tip of the hat to his humble beginnings, were selling in the six figures thanks to the Flame’s muscle. The Flame and the Duke would be seen all around town. Rumor had it that the Flame was in charge of the Duke’s entire wardrobe. Art Forum did a cover story on the Duke entitled “The Future of Art?”
A year later, things took an ugly turn. The economy tanked. The Flame was arrested for fraud and Marmaduke Johnson III was back living in an abandoned tenement in Harlem hooked on skag and still spray painting concentric circles on pieces of found canvases…the latest exploration was the surface of an old tire. While life had come full circle for the Duke, Manfred Gogol gave up the art business to become a successful film producer. Gogol had moved to Hollywood, had a young wife, a parrot named Bobo, and was living the good life.
One day, Mercedes, Gogol’s wife not his car (a Lamborghini btw), was cleaning out a closet and came across an old spiral sketchbook. In it were pages and pages of pencil illustrations of circles within circles within circles. It looked like the sketches of a person with schizophrenia or just someone with a serious obsession with circles. When Mercedes asked Manfred, who was lounging on an alligator-shaped floatation device in their huge swimming pool, what she should do with the dog-eared old sketchbook she had found, she got a two word reply.
“Why’s that?” she replied
“It’s probably just garbage,” said Gogol, not knowing (how could he?) that the Duke would be found dead of a heroin overdose a couple months later in that same Harlem tenement. The Duke’s work never really caught on after his mentor had flamed out and landed in the hole. As for the sketchbook, it probably only had sentimental value at this point and no one seemed to really care about the recent obit item in the Village Voice on Marmaduke Johnson III. People on the street in New York seemed much more concerned about their shrinking portfolios than about the former 31-year-old street artist/junkie who drew tiny little circles on car fenders.
(illustrations: adam kluger)
Adam Kluger is a New York City born street artist & writer. A direct descendant of famed British sculptor Jacob Epstein and a past art student of renowned artist, Ion Theodore. Kluger went to the same high school as Jack Kerouac, and spent some time studying the great artists throughout Europe before settling back in New York. Kluger draws his inspiration from diverse sources that include Jean Dubuffet, Marc Chagall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Bob Ross, Eric Payson and Pablo Picasso. A collection of his fiction is due for publication in 2016. More From Adam Kluger can be found in the Vault of Smoke.